The southern right whale is a baleen whale and one of three species classified as right whales. This species is easily distinguished from others because of their broad back without a dorsal fin, wide pectoral fins, a long arching mouth that begins above the eye and small rough patches of skin (or callosities) on its large head.
It has very dark grey or black skin, with occasional white patches on the belly. Its two separate blow holes produce a distinguishing V-shaped blow. Southern rights have an enormous head which is up to one quarter of total body length. The callosities on the head are made of hard material, similar to human finger-nails, which appear white due to large colonies of whale lice called cyamids. The number, shape and position of the callosities are unique to each individual whale, and allow us to tell them apart. Southern right whales tend to have a large callosity at the front of the head, called a ‘bonnet’.
Whaling of southern right whales
Land-based whaling in Australia initially concentrated on southern right whales. They get their name because they were the ‘right’ whale to catch: they were slow-swimming, floated when dead, and provided large amounts of valuable products – particularly oil for illumination and lubrication.
Commercial whaling began in Australia in 1820, taking around 75% of the southern right whale population between 1835 and 1845, when the industry collapsed. It took another 90 years before they were officially protected.
An estimated 12,000 southern right whales are spread throughout the southern hemisphere, compared to an original population before whaling of more than 100,000. However, their numbers are growing at around 7% per annum, which means that sightings are becoming increasingly common, which is all the better for whale watchers!
These days, southern right whales delight whale watchers with their peculiar looks and crowd attracting antics, like breaching and headstands. They are increasingly seen on the NSW coastline from May to the end of November. You can spot them off the shore of a beach, on a boat or venture into a NSW national park.
Southern right whales can be found in very shallow water including estuaries and bays. They have even been known to swim into the surf zone, but are not known to strand. If you are lucky enough, you may even delight in watching the mothers and calves playing together. This is a very important time for the calf, as the mother is teaching its young the life skills it will need before it returns to the Antarctic.
Southern right whale facts
- Length Adults: 14m to 18m; Calves: 5m to 6m at birth
- Weight Adults: up to 80 tonnes; Calves: 1 to 1.5 tonnes at birth
- Gestation: 11 to 12 months
- Weaning age: 11 to 12 months
- Calving interval: generally 3 years
- Physical maturity age: unknown; Length: 16m
- Sexual maturity age: 9 to 10 years
- Length: 12m to 13m
- Mating season: July to August
- Calving season: June to August
- Cruising speed: 3km/h
- Blow pattern: V-shaped bushy blow, up to 5m
- Protected since 1935